Category Archives: Feature

Enchanted by ‘Magic Bullets’?

September 2017 Feature

This brief essay attempts to describe a phenomenon which seems to be fairly widespread in the churches of Singapore. It represents an outsider perspective: I am a British citizen and PR who has lived in Singapore for 18 years. It should be read in that light.

The last fifty years of Singapore’s history have largely been a success story.

Singapore is a small island with almost no natural resources. But over the past few decades, and due in large part to the vision of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and those who worked with him, Singapore has become a major business hub, one of the most prosperous nations of the world. Plans were made, goals were set, decisions were taken – and Singapore underwent an astonishing transformation.

Singapore’s national success seems to have rubbed off on the Singaporean church: Christians here in general expect to succeed, to make progress in their walk with God, and to see their churches grow. There is much to praise in this outlook, much from which churches in the West could learn.

But the question arises: what if the expected success does not materialise? What if the church does not grow and church life seems to stagnate? What happens when Christians feel that they have been spiritually ‘stuck’ for years on end, still troubled by the same sins, with no clear signs of growth? At this point it seems that some Singaporean Christians reach for ‘magic bullets’.

What is a ‘magic bullet’? It can be a prayer, a book, a spiritual practice, a church programme, a new teaching, a particular preacher who is believed to be especially anointed by God. It can be something – anything – that is presented to Christians as a means of bringing about swift transformation in their walk with God. A ‘magic bullet’, in other words, is a spiritual ‘quick fix’.

Readers may remember the Prayer of Jabez. In 1 Chronicles 4:10 we read: ‘Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked.’

Fifteen years ago in Singapore that prayer was on everyone’s lips: books were written about it; sermons were preached. Pray this prayer, it was said, and God will bless you and ‘enlarge your border’. But the Prayer of Jabez has gone out of fashion.

More recently, there was the ‘40 Days of Purpose’ programme. A number of churches here committed themselves to that programme a few years back. Maybe there was real growth in those churches as a result. But these days one doesn’t hear so much about the ‘40 Days’.

Think, too, of those books on sale in Christian bookshops, books with a smiling man or woman on the cover, and the implicit message: ‘I’ve made it as a Christian; buy this book and you can be as successful as me (with God’s help)’.

‘End times’ teachings may also fall into this category: teachings which focus on the contemporary fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and whose message is, ‘Keep your eyes on the Middle East!’ Here the ‘quick fix’ element consists in a new perspective which (it is claimed) will thrillingly transform our understanding of what God is doing in the world these days.

For many years now, these and other ‘magic bullets’ have been ricocheting around Singaporean churches. Perhaps pastors should occasionally address this issue. A simple word at the end of a sermon might help many to see things more clearly:

‘Why are you so attracted by “magic bullets”? You feel, perhaps, that you’re not making progress as a Christian, that you’re not coping; that you’ve been stuck in the same place for too long.

‘But are you still reading your Bible? Do you pray, and do you sometimes see answers to your prayers? Do you worship regularly with God’s people? Do you seriously try to live out what you’re taught in church? Do you confess your sins to God, and ask God’s help in overcoming them?

‘Are you a person of integrity? In your workplace do you aim to conduct yourself as a Christian should? Are you faithful to your spouse? Are you loyal to your parents? Are you a good parent yourself? In short, are you trying to live the Christian life?

‘If you can answer those questions “Yes” (knowing that you fall short sometimes), then don’t be too concerned about what you may see as your failure to make progress. Maybe God is better pleased with you than you think.

‘Don’t make spiritual success an idol. Perhaps God wants to keep you in the same place for a while, so that you can learn that spiritual growth comes from Him, and is not something that you can generate by yourself.

‘Or maybe you are making progress without your being aware of it. There may not have been any spectacular changes in your life. But perhaps, as you have sought to remain faithful to God in the daily, weekly and yearly round of your life, your character has been transformed. Perhaps over the years the image of Christ has been taking shape in you, without your being aware of it.’

‘Why not leave the magic bullets for those who hunt vampires? You don’t need them.’

Readers may have gathered that this issue is something of a personal hobby horse. But I have not written this article primarily to ‘get something off my chest’, still less with the aim of offending brothers or sisters in Christ. I write out of a concern that some Christians in Singapore, out of a worthy desire for spiritual growth, are looking for help in the wrong places, and maybe troubling their consciences unnecessarily as the ‘magic bullets’ fail to bring the promised transformation.

I invite my readers to consider whether they agree, wholly or in part, with this ‘outsider’ perspective and, if they do agree, to reflect on what the appropriate response might be.


Dr Philip Satterthwaite has been Principal of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) since 2011. He has been Lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at BGST since May 1998.

Reflections on the Galileo Effect- Was the Galileo Affair a Conflict between Science and Religion?

August 2017 Feature

The arrest of Galileo Galilei for proposing a sun-centered model of the universe despite being told not to has been cited as an embarrassing example of the inevitable conflict between the forward-looking nature of science and regressive character of religion.

This article will offer a brief recounting of this episode in order to show the difficulty of drawing simplistic conclusions concerning religion’s conflicting or cooperative relationship with science at the time. It will then mention some lessons the episode can offer us today.

Galileo, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, made seminal contributions to physics, engineering, and astronomy. With the creation of a superior telescope, his corresponding observations led him to favour the physical reality of a sun-centered Copernican model of the universe, whose mathematical calculations he had already favoured beforehand.

The Catholic Church had previously accepted the Copernican model insofar as it was a useful  predictive mathematical tool that did not otherwise assert that the sun must be at the center of the universe. Instead, the Church and many astronomers accepted the physical reality of an earth-centered model of the universe based on Aristotelian physics.

Aristotelian physics conceived reality as composed of five elements, four of which consist of inferior material which tended to the center of the universe, that is, earth, which was unmoving. The fifth element, quintessence, an incorruptible and unchanging material, was what made the heavenly bodies and determined that they revolve around the earth in perfect circles for eternity.

Galileo’s observations revealed to him, among other things, that the surface of the sun and moon were not perfect, as quintessence would have it; and that Jupiter had four moons, which indicated that the heavenly bodies did not all revolve around the earth.

He published these findings indicating his preference for the Copernican model in 1610 and 1613. This led Holy Office – the office charged with ensuring orthodoxy – to declare the implications of these findings false.

Many scientists disagreed with Galileo as well. They argued that the Copernican model could not yield superior predictions to the earth-centered model partly because both assumed circular rather than elliptical orbits. They also argued, wrongly – because they did not have powerful enough measurement equipment at the time – that stellar parallax, which should be observable if the earth was moving, could not, in fact, be observed.

However, by 1613 and 1615, he had already sent out widely circulated defending the Copernican model on scriptural grounds.

In the letters, he relied heavily on the interpretive principles of the Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine’s concept of “accommodation,” which is the idea that the scriptures have been written to accommodate the mind of the common person, giving priority and clarity to matters pertaining to salvation, not to scientifically robust descriptions of reality.

The verses which had been appealed to in support of the Aristotelian model included Joshua 10.13, Psalm 19.4-6; 93.1; 96.10; 104.5; 119.90; Ecclesiastes 1.5, and I Chronicles 16.30.

Unfortunately, by engaging with scriptural interpretation, he was treading on thin ice. The Church had been embroiled in theological and political conflict with the Protestant Reformers for some time, and had declared at the Council of Trent in 1545-63 that “no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, had held and does hold.”

Thankfully, Pope Urban VIII, who was a long-time admirer of Galileo’s work, told him in 1624 that he could discuss Copernican theory but only as one hypothesis among others. This emboldened Galileo to, rather unwisely, promote Copernican theory by publishing a fictional dialogue between three individuals about cosmology in 1632. And he gave the name Simplicio, which means someone who is simple-minded, to the advocate of the Aristotelian position, a position which the Pope personally favoured.

In other words, Galileo seemed to be accusing the Pope of being simple-minded in an underhanded way. As one might imagine, the Pope did not take this lightly. He was at the time embroiled in the Thirty-Years’ War, had just switched his allegiance from the French to the Spanish and felt that he needed to come down strong on Galileo to show his new allies his authority and decisiveness.

Thus, in 1633, he was summoned to the Holy Office and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. He was ordered to publicly recant his Copernican astronomy and be confined to his home in Florence where he remained until his death in 1642.

A century later, the Church began the gradual process of publicly shifting their stance toward Galileo. In 1744, Galileo’s Dialogue was republished with the Church’s approval. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII advanced a view concerning the relationship between the scriptures and science in his encyclical like those in Galileo’s letters. Between 1941 and 46, several academic clergymen occasioned a partial and informal rehabilitation of Galileo in their published work. And in 1979, Pope John Paul II initiated the latest informal rehabilitation of him.

From this brief recounting of the episode, it is apparent that interpreting the affair as a conflict between science and religion would be an over-simplification. To appreciate the complexities involved, the minimum factors, of varying weight, that should be considered include the legitimate disagreement among scientists toward Copernican astronomy, the Reformers’ challenge to the Church’s interpretive authority, Pope Urban VIII’s own political troubles, Galileo’s commitment to the primacy of mathematics over Aristotelian physics, and his unwise jab at the Pope.

What can be learned from this episode? We can learn that the relationship between the scriptures and the deliverances of modern science is not a straightforward one. We can also learn to appreciate the different kinds of literary genres in the scriptures and value their theological import without necessarily committing ourselves to their corresponding literal descriptions of reality.


Keith Leong studied Theology and Religion with a focus on science and religion at Durham University and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from 2013-2016. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore.

Our Way is Not to be Discovered in Ourselves, but Offered from Another

July 2017 Feature

I know, O Lord, that the way of humankind is not in themselves,
that it is not in the person who walks to direct their steps. 

Jeremiah 10:23[i]

As a young man, I worked as a foreman on a US National Forest Service fire-crew in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon.  The Cascades’ undulating hills and conical peaks are beautiful, but easy to get lost in if you leave the trail and head into the woods.

I discovered this the hard way when I led my crew into the woods to extinguish a small lightning fire in a large dead Cedar about two miles off the main road. Rain and mist from the low canopy of clouds limited our view.

Unable to locate the burning snag, I called in a spotter plane to circle over the tree as a guide. We knew the aircraft would only circle briefly, so when it did appear above the trees we hastily set down our packs and dashed some 300 meters to the smouldering snag.

The rain had done most of our job for us, so I had part of the crew fell the tree and douse its coals while I and three crewman walked back to fetch our packs that contained food but more importantly our compass.

Given that we hadn’t run far, we assumed fetching the packs simple, but thirty minutes in and no packs to be seen, we turned back to the fire.  Yet, we were unable to find the fire. For two hours we searched but to no avail; we were adrift in mists, rolling woods and the gloom of dusk. I had a map, but it was useless without a compass for bearings.

Finally, the mist began to give way and the cloud canopy lifted. In the distance I saw Bachelor Mountain appear on the horizon and with this landmark and the sunlight filtering in I was able to pinpoint our position on the map and thus we were able to make our way back to the fire.

With light came direction and Jeremiah’s prophecy suggests the same. According to the word given to Jeremiah, humans are not designed to make their way by themselves.

Spiritually, vocationally, and relationally, they need guidance and that need is built into our physical and spiritual DNA. Indeed, Biblical Hebrew language reveals our need for guidance.  In ancient Hebrew, the term “in front of” (qedem) is word for “past.” and the word for “behind” (achar) is the root of the term “future” (achareet).

Hence, humans face the past and walk backward into the future and it follows that “the way of adam (humankind) is not in themselves;” humans require another to guide them in their way.  Without orientation, direction, and grace we are fated to wander aimlessly. Both collectively and individually we need another who sees the future gives guidance to on our way.

That guide is given a name by Abraham (Gen 22:14). Abraham names to the one who not only stayed his hand from killing Isaac and provided the sacrifice as “Jehovah Jireh” (KJV) or “The Lord Will Provide” (NIV).

Yet the name “Jehovah Jireh” literally means “Yahweh who sees”. Thus, Abraham honours Yahweh who sees to his need and guides him in his way. Abraham like Jeremiah realizes that his way of is not in himself, it was not in Abraham who walks to direct his own steps.

The implications of this for us are legion as we make our own way in the world, but let me suggest at least three areas it affects us.

First, knowledge that is sound and leads to wisdom requires revelation.  You see without sound guidance the data, research, quantitative and qualitative analysis we gather is of questionable value.

Certainly controlled experiments, statistical analysis, rational decision analyses can produce mountains of data that can be diligently catalogued and refined, yet without wisdom and direction cannot tell us what is its value and how we understand and apply it.

As Stanley Fish has noted:

No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.[ii]

Fish reminds us that research and analysis that leads enables reason and sound engagement insists that it answer normative questions such as “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”  Naturally that requires more than a description of what is, but some insight into what ought to be.

Biblically that requires that knowledge be informed by the one who sees and guides. Thus, sound research should be informed by revelation and even spiritual guidance.

Apart from sound guidance, humankind is prone to organise and use knowledge to pursue what in the long run are personally or collectively destructive and defiling.  Thus, spiritual autonomy affords an intellectual vertigo that is bound to harm more than it heals.

Yet, the spiritual dependency of sound analysis and reason suggest the more profound reality, that knowledge is personal.  Jeremiah’s prophecy assumes another. The act of “directing” transcends a mere rational course of action and contends we need one who is able to direct us a methodology for life.

Jeremiah’s words imply the bond of a traveller and their guide. And because this guidance is personal it is also infers that it is nurtured in a dynamic back and forth.

Thus, rather than a commander and a soldier, it is more like a pair engaged ballroom dance where there the subtle communication of lead and sensitive response make the two dancers one in motion, expression, and essence.

Finally, if my understanding of the passage is correct, this direction is a free gift.  Our need for direction may be universal, yet it is not imposed.

The wanderer is not forced by the guide, nor is the guide under obligation to direct. As a gift it requires that the traveller to accept and follow the direction of the guide, and the guide free to direct as they see fit and according to their will. By design it is a relationship build on trust that the direction given is for the good.

Naturally, this has implications for how we think about grace, action, and good works. When it comes to the relationship between, grace faith and works, a passage many of us have learned by heart is Ephesians 2:8ff

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves—it is the gift of God.  Not by works lest any person boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ for good works. which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The relationship between grace, action, and direction is lost in the English translations of this passage. The verb “to do” peripateō literally means to walk and refers to the direction of one’s life.

Therein lies the deep echo of this passage with the prophecy of Jeremiah. Grace, faith, salvation as well as our work and life interpenetrate one another. Our life work and fulfilment thus rest in our relationship to the one who leads and guides and indeed laid down his life that we might be reunited with him through grace and faith.

Here our nature and calling to be relational, rational, and compassionate beings find its completion and fulfilment. He is our guide as we walk with him.


[i] All bible verses are my translation

[ii] Stanley Fish; “Are there Secular Reasons” New York Times: Opinionator, February 22, 2010 6:00 pm. At .


Dr Thomas Harvey is Academic Dean at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He taught theology at Trinity Theological College for many years.


Christian Hospitality from ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

June 2017 Feature

Public discourse on issues concerning immigration and foreign workers is often carried out within the framework of “human rights,” “national interests,” and “Asian values,” with religious values having a lesser role in the discussion. While this is understandably the preferred approach in a secular and multicultural society like Singapore, the Christian community must believe it has a point of view that can make a true difference in the problem-solving efforts.

The Christian view does not necessarily contradict these contemporary categories of thinking but it can offer humane perspectives based on an alternative view of people and the world. In this article, I would like to reflect on the question, “Why should we be hospitable to new immigrants or to resident non-citizens?”

I believe the Christian perspective supplies some good answers, and deep theological meaning can be discovered in the normal hospitality that we accord to the foreigner in our midst.

We live in the age of unprecedented human migration. Barring the implementing of regional plans by governments to check or reverse the trend, global mass migrations will continue to characterise present reality. As an instance, in a press release by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, it was reported that in 2013, a third or 30% of marriages in Singapore involved at least one spouse who was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, up from 23% in 2003.[i]  The trend of marriage to foreign spouses will likely continue to rise in Singapore as the city moves toward greater cosmopolitanism.

Churches have to face the reality of rapid social change, and can expect people of an uncommon ethnicity or origin to appear at the church’s doorstep. While most churches emphasize hospitality and kindness towards strangers, and discourage cliquishness, the encouragement to do so is usually based upon the evangelistic motive.

This is certainly more laudable than promoting exclusiveness or exclusion, but we can miss the important truth that the basis for Christian hospitality towards strangers is first derived from the Scriptural understanding of God’s compassion for the vulnerable and the Church’s self-understanding as a pilgrim people.

“Because You Were Foreigners in Egypt”

Charles Van Engen, a professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that while the Old Testament often presents foreigners as enemies of the people of God, it also contains many commands to Israel to care for the foreigners or “strangers” who lived in their midst.[ii]

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Ex 23:9, NIV

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Lv 19:34, NIV[iii]

The commands given by God through Moses were accompanied by the reason why the Israelites must treat foreigners well and not oppress them: the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt so they knew what it had been like to experience suffering and oppression as foreigners. The Israelites and the foreigners shared a common experience of alienation and suffering, and this bond must be expressed in the dignified treatment of the less powerful group.

Van Engen traced another theological meaning in God’s demand for the Israelites to show compassion – it would serve as a constant reminder to them that they were themselves a people who were pilgrims, sojourners and immigrants in the land. This was to be an integral aspect of their calling as a people even after they entered the Promised Land.

From God’s call to Abram to leave his country and become a sojourner, through to the period of the Exile when God’s people had to learn to live in a place where they did not belong, Israel’s self-understanding continued to be that of a migrant race. This self-perception would carry into the Christian faith as Jewish and Gentile believers grasped the truth that they have inherited not only the privilege of being God’s people but also its pilgrim character.

Jesus and Neighbourliness

Jesus’ approach to the poor and dispossessed in society was built on the Old Testament tradition of mercy and compassion for the disadvantaged. His teachings re-established the spirit of the Old Testament ethic, which had been kept in the practice of the law but not in the sentiments that it was meant to evoke, and superseded it with new and radical applications. He did this particularly through reinstating “neighbourliness” as a supreme way worshipping God (Mt 22:34-40), and by redefining the word “neighbour” (Lk 10:36-37).

By introducing the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ which in the Law is never placed next to the command to love God, Jesus raised its spiritual status to a startling height and intertwined loving one’s neighbor with loving God. In his telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘neighbour’ is no longer understood in terms of geographic, ethnic or cultural proximity. The robbery victim’s ‘neighbour’ is simply ‘the one who had mercy on him.’ Christian neighbourliness therefore consists in loving the neighbour we know as much as we love ourselves, and by showing mercy to the stranger in need we do not yet know, thereby making ourselves a neighbour to him.

Jesus’ teachings shaped how the early church related to pagan society. The same spirit permeated the church leaders’ instructions to their congregations on intra- and inter-church relations (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9, 1 Tm 3:2, Ti 1:8, 3 Jn 7-9), and relations with the unbelieving world (Heb 13:2, 3). Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian continued in the same vein, exhorting Christians to continue in the practice of love and concern for strangers and foreigners.

Encountering God in the Migrant

In his essay, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Miguel Diaz spoke of how ministering to migrants and understanding the experience of migration helps us as believers to “reconceive the mystery of God.”[iv] Deliberating on the thought of Karl Rahner and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who both wrote about how we encounter the presence and mystery of God in our daily interaction with fellow human beings who may be very different from us, Diaz invites us to see how, in the Incarnation, Jesus could be conceived of as a migrant who crosses the border and experiences all the accompanying dangers of migration in order to bridge his world and ours.

Diaz concluded that “there is something about crossing over and welcoming others (especially alienated others) that mirrors how God crosses over and welcomes us in Jesus Christ. A human community that does not welcome others and their otherness—a human community that rejects and shuns identifying with the suffering of migrating strangers—does not image the mystery of God.”[v]

From ‘Migrant’ to Migrant

Singapore is a nation of immigrants, so it might be something of a surprise to the casual observer that we have not been very hospitable to entrance seekers and migrant workers residing in Singapore. This is not so surprising upon reflection. Hospitality towards others not like us is not part of the social DNA of any society. In Singapore, this has not been helped by the fact that many of our forebears were poor immigrants.

Their first concern was for their own economic survival, not the well-being of society. For them, charity began, and often ended, at home. The cautious immigrant mindset has remained, and is today encouraged by the modern myth of self-achieved success. “Since I earned my wealth and comfort through my own perspiration, why should you not do the same?” How do we practice Christian hospitality in this setting?

We often think of hospitality as something we do, whether it is preparing a meal for friends and relatives or welcoming a visitor in church. Christian hospitality is much more than outward politeness and service.

It begins with self-understanding and the inner life of worship that finds its way into our daily activities. It has to do with recognizing that we are ourselves pilgrims and foreigners who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), and understanding what it feels like to have to make a home far from home. It concerns our readiness to surrender ‘We-Them’ distinctions and to place unfamiliar others in a common space with us under the same appellation – neighbour. It has to do with welcoming others because we are imitating Christ who “crossed over” to welcome us. In more than one sense, we are migrants ministering to migrants.


[i] Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, “New Measures to Help Prospective Singaporean-Foreigner Couples Better Plan For Their Future,” Press Release, 24 October 2014.

[ii] Charles Van Engen, “Biblical Perspectives on the Role of Immigrants in God’s Mission,” Journal of Latin American Theology 3, no. 2 (2008): 17-19.

[iii] See also Ex 22:21, 23:12; Leviticus 19:33; and Dt 10:19. The presence of these commands is remarkable when one learns that other ancient near eastern legal codes do not have statements of provision or compassion for foreigners.

[iv] Miguel H. Diaz, “On Loving Strangers: Encountering the Mystery of God in the Face of Migrants,” Word & World 29, no. 3 (2009): 235.

[v] Ibid., 240.


Dr Fong Choon Sam is Dean of Academic Studies and Interim Co-President at Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches in the Missions, Religions, and Research areas.

Pop Music, Pragmatism, and Christianity

May 2017 Feature

In February 2016, Singapore’s Catholic archbishop Goh urged his fellow Catholics to differentiate “pseudo arts” from “authentic arts that lead us to God.” The criticism was directed toward the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna.

In everyday discourse, the term popular music can generally be described as types of music of lower complexity than art music, having wide appeal, and ready to be enjoyed by large numbers of musically uneducated people rather than only by a certain élite. Its identifying elements can include the use of simple melodic tunes and repeated choruses.

How should Christians view and evaluate pop music along with the culture it spawns?

In order to understand the phenomena of popular art, we must understand a certain philosophical background that has helped these phenomena to flourish, that is, the philosophy of pragmatism.

According to the pragmatist philosopher Dewey, the special function of art lies above all in the enhancement of human immediate experience. The supremacy of the aesthetic is that art can be immediately enjoyed. The final standard in pragmatism is not truth but experience.

Pragmatism criticizes the modern conception of art that has detached art from real life and send it to a separate realm like the concert hall and museum. Instead of associating aesthetic experience with normal processes of living, art has been compartmentalized in an élite realm accessible only for certain people.

Dewey disapproves such elitist tradition and want to bring art back in everydayness. He therefore rejects the dualism of high versus popular culture by insisting on the fundamental continuity instead.

According to pragmatism, the so-called ‘high’ art music performed in the concert halls (and in some traditional churches!) has removed art from human lives. Pragmatist aesthetics therefore privileges art experience over the art object. The way to this enhanced art experience is through popular art.

We can appreciate Dewey’s genuine concern about the elitist tradition. Indeed, the Bible does not advocate elitism but opts for universal inclusion. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We also appreciate Dewey’s effort to bring art back in everydayness.

However, there are serious difficulties in the pragmatist solution of popular art viewed from the Christian perspective.

First, the immediacy of aesthetic experience as the ultimate goal of art is highly problematic when viewed from biblical perspective. Christianity is not an immediate (read: instant) way of life. There is no easy and convenient truth without a long process of learning and struggling.

If we agree that there is a strong relation between the kind of art that we consume and our spirituality, then one of the dangers of popular music lies precisely in its immediacy and instantness. The unformed life is not worth living. Popular music tends to produce instant (pseudo) spirituality.

Secondly, the strong emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is hardly compatible with the biblical view. Biblically speaking, there is no truly satisfying experience apart from truth.

Popular music cares little for its content since it aims primarily for enhanced experience (of feeling good, for instance). This kind of experience, however, imprisons humans in subtle addiction.

On the contrary, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Swiss reformer Zwingli related the idea of Christian freedom and true happiness when he said, “Truth wears a happy face.” Happy experience cannot be separated from truth.

Thirdly, due to its goal to bring music to large numbers of listeners with little or no musical training, popular music frequently, if not always, displays lack of depth and along with it, of deep quality.

Any complex music is suspected of succumbing to the elitist tradition. The absoluteness of simplicity, however, can be considered as a denial of growing and becoming mature seen from the biblical perspective. The celebration of simplicity that avoids the process of growing can easily lead to the celebration of triviality and naïveness.

The Bible, on the contrary, teaches humans to give up childish ways to become an adult and mature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:14).

Fourthly, the problem of sharing the complex art and music, the so-called ‘high’ art, is not resolved by replacing them with easy-to-listen music. If that were the case, then there would have been no incarnation. Replacing high Christology with low Christology is never an orthodox evangelical way of settling the problem.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christianity commits to believe in the incarnation of the Most High. Pragmatism teaches us to discard everything high coming from the idealistic realm while replacing it with popular concrete experience.

Christianity celebrates not only the possibility but also the certainty of the Logos that has become flesh. Christianity concurs with pragmatist criticism of Platonic idealism but comes up with different solution.

If we believe in the way of incarnation, then we don’t have to replace the ‘high’ with the ‘low’ but to teach and edify our children and ourselves so that we can grow from childhood to adulthood.

The reformers believed in the power of catechism. Luther translated the Bible into German. Zwingli applied the university method of teaching in his Sunday service expository preaching, that is, chapter by chapter of the Gospel. He did not oversimplify the life of Christ through popular preaching; rather, he edified his congregation in the way theological students were taught at the university.

Catechism is a Christian protest against the pragmatist easy solution that often leads to uneducatedness and ignorance. Calvin famously stated, “We know that where there is no understanding, there is certainly no edification.”

We need not only theological catechism but also catechism on good Christian arts and music. May God help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Rev. Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean of International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta and a part time lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. He received a doctorate of philosophy in musicology and a doctorate in theology Systematic Theology both from Heidelberg University. He lives in Singapore since 2002 with his Family.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Offering a Fresh Perspective by Questioning the Question

April 2017 Feature

The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.

A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.[1]

It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.

On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.

As Miroslav Volf argues,

‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’[2]

On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.

He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’[3]

While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’

Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.

Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:

(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?

(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.

To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.

Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:

(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?

(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.

So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.





Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.



Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

March 2017 Feature Article

Now that I am middle-aged, I am more acutely aware of my physical body. There are some things I cannot do anymore, like stay up late, my knees hurt especially when walking down stairs, and I put on weight easily. When I was younger I was quite oblivious to these physical limitations, but no longer. The media and cultural preference for youthfulness means that some people may look down at me because of my grey hair, and pity me that I am past my physical prime, but I have come to appreciate my physical-ness and these restrictions.

Some people take the view that the body is unimportant, since we are all going to die and our bodies will decay anyway, so we can do what we want and indulge in all our fleshly desires. Others go to the other extreme of almost worshipping their bodies or physical prowess and so undergo punishing routines to appear beautiful or to win medals. The biblical view is neither of these, but that the body is fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator God and so is to be cared for and respected.

Created Bodies

The Christian view of the physical body is unique among other religions and science as we believe that we are created by God out of both the dust of the earth and His breath (Gen 2:7). Each part of the body is wonderfully made. We see that in a new born baby so beautifully and fully formed even when she is so tiny, and with the potential and capacity to grow into adulthood. Many of us have eyes to see with, but few of us appreciate the complexity of the physiology of the eye – nerves, lenses, muscles, membranes, etc. – which when all is working well together, enables us to see.

In the Incarnation God himself took on human flesh and thus the human body is given dignity and worth. Jesus lived, eventually suffered at the hands of Pontus Pilate and died. He rose in a glorious resurrected body, the first fruits of those who have died. Since death came through one man, Adam, so resurrection of the dead will come through one man, Jesus (1 Cor 15:20-22). The disciples could recognise him in his resurrected form, that person in that body walked, talked, and ate, yet had the power to go through locked doors and disappear in an instance (e.g. Luke 24). That same Jesus is now in the heavenly realm in that resurrected body and will return again in that body.

It is out of this foundational belief that all human beings are created in the image of God that propels Christians into ministry to care for unwanted children, the mentally incapacitated or the elderly because they too are created in God’s image and therefore worthy of care and love. These people may not be able to thank us or repay us but we still care for them.

Interconnected Bodies

Our physical bodies are also wonderfully made in that our bodies are finely interconnected. We need both eyes to balance and see depth. Our bodies are also marvellous complex wholes – the air we breathe and the food we eat provide the basic nutrients for our bodies to function, to grow strong and healthy, and to enable a baby to grow into maturity and adulthood.

Each part of the body is needed (maybe not the appendix) and even the loss of one small part can affect the whole body. Still the recent Paralympic Games has shown that a loss of a limb or even a sense of hearing does not stop people from competing in sports. We marvel at the skill and ability of these sportspeople, especially when we ourselves find that when we have injured one part of our body we can barely function.

We are also spiritually, emotionally and mentally one cohesive whole. When we are struggling emotionally we find that we easily fall sick, or find it hard to connect with God. This psychosomatic whole which is our human identity then is also foundational in the way we treat others. We strive to be sensitive to the whole person, e.g. looking beyond physical deformities to the person. We recognise this interconnectedness in healing and pastoral care; that one cannot deal just with physical symptoms without also touching on the emotional and spiritual.
The body then is to be taken care of and cherished. Not in an obsessive way in a way but in a way that honours our Maker. But it’s not just my body that is to be cared for, as Christians we are also to care for all bodies. Hence the need for physical ministries, like healing the sick, and feeding the hungry. And so we respect the body even to the end, and bury the body with dignity.

Relational Bodies

Above and beyond being physical bodies with God’s spirit in us, we are also created in the image of God (Gen 1:26). That rich phrase means that we have capacities such as the ability to love others, and have attributes such as creativity, which are given by God. As Prof John Wyatt adds, being created in the image of God also means that human beings are not self-explanatory but we derive our meaning from outside ourselves, from the God in whose image we bear (in John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 2006, p.431). Therefore human beings are to reflect the divine attributes and character of God.

Just as God in Trinity is in relationship within Himself, so humans are made with the capacity to relate with one another and with God. As relational beings we must live in community to best express our humanity. We are created to be in communion with others.

Therefore as we contemplate the fullness of what it means to be physical human beings, we can exclaim with the Psalmist, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them…Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8:4, 9).

Dr Kwa Kiem-Kiok teaches intercultural studies at East Asia School of Theology and sits on several bioethics committees. She is a member of Trinity Methodist Church. 

Strangers and God Encounters

February 2017 Feature Article

A Land of Strangers

In this cosmopolitan world of growing homogeneity, we are daily faced with stories and issues surrounding migration—in our local press, coffee shops, crowded trains and political circles. Churches have even started to engage on the subject, albeit occasionally.

Yet while we try to keep up with our understanding and response to the controversies, real and pressing global issues of migration continue to escalate, from the distant refugee crisis in Europe to the low-wage migrant workers right here in our midst.

Singapore currently houses about 1 million low-wage migrant workers, including domestic helpers and those working in construction, marine and manufacturing industries. The stranger is present in our homes, hospitals, streets, trains and malls. India, China, Philippines, Bangladesh and people from all across the globe share our private and public space.

The question for the local church now is: how should we respond to this phenomenon of strangers in our land? With an increasing xenophobia both overt and subtle in our values, policies and community life in Singapore, our Christian faith is the antidote. We must respond with ‘Philoxenia’ instead.

The Greek word ‘philoxenia’ means a love of strangers.

Healthserve was initiated nine years ago to serve the migrants and marginalised through the provision of simple medical services. It soon became apparent that the mere provision of medicine and expertise would not suffice. If we were to meet the deepest needs of these migrants, a fresh understanding of who the stranger was and a rediscovery of our Christian tradition of hospitality would be crucial.

Soon, counselling had become a part of the medical consultation, social assistance was given out in the form of EZLink and phone cards, and outings and meals were regularly organized for those who came to see us. A safe space for community and hospitality had been gently birthed. The stranger had been noticed and invited into our community.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

In Jesus’ Luke 16 parable, Lazarus sits outside the rich man’s home separated by a gate and probably a wall. The rich man must have gone in and out through the gate several times daily never noticing or ignoring Lazarus. This gate and wall, while protecting the rich man’s luxurious lifestyle, also became the barrier between him and his fellowman.

What about the poor migrant and stranger who sits at our gates? Perhaps Jesus in this parable is not chastising the rich man for his wealth but for the fact that he never notices Lazarus despite frequently passing him by. By keeping himself separate in his own ‘safe’ world, the rich man had become inattentive. When we separate ourselves from those different to us, indifference and cynicism take root and we develop walls of cataracts that blind us to their needs.

What we need is an attentive presence.

Hospitality expresses godly obedience (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2). The Healthserve community lives out this word as we engage the strangers in our lands with active philoxenia.

After all, the concept of strangers is not strange to Christians. Abraham met God near the trees of Mamre, Lot met God in the angels, Mary and her friends met Jesus thinking He was the gardener, and the two disciples met Jesus while walking to Emmaus. Yet passing through Little India, Lucky Plaza or Peninsular Plaza on a Sunday heightens a sense of strangeness in us—Christian or otherwise.

As Christians, we first encountered God as strangers. When meeting new people, we connect on commonalities like mutual friendships, similar interests or shared affiliations. When we encounter a stranger different to us, however, strangeness seems the only commonality. But there is a choice. When we choose to be attentively present with those unlike us, we are choosing to celebrate the common humanity which unites us all.

Christian hospitality is much about strangers serving strangers.

It helps to remember that we are pilgrims and were once all aliens. A modern Acts 2 community is experienced though the shared journey of discovering our identity in Christ.

While the world rejects migrants at the margins, we can practice Christian hospitality by leading them to the centre. When we remember our own acute alienation before God encountered us, we can generously extend this gift of hospitality to those at the margins.

Generosity, love and security in Christ is enjoyed as a community in Healthserve when we treat a patient, offer or receive life advice, share a meal or story with each other. Taking this posture, the expectation that a migrant simply cleans our streets or builds our homes deepens into a gospel understanding of reciprocal mutuality. Such love is essential for humanity to flourish and experience God intimately.

Every community has a story.

When Healthserve welcomes a new migrant, he discovers a community rich in its own journey, history, meaning and identity. This richness is possible only because the love of God comes alive in community—where volunteers young and old alike, dancing Pentecostals and Bible Presbyterians, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrants come together to share their meals and stories.

Healthserve is constantly being transformed by the people we serve, and they are in turn transformed by encountering Christ. The gospel in this milieu is powerfully proclaimed in a subversive way, and it is in this context too that advocacy and speaking against unjust systems comes naturally. We seek to protect the vulnerable while feeding and clothing them because true hospitality cannot ignore structural injustices.

Rediscovering Christian hospitality

This is how true Christian hospitality can lead a Christian community towards an integral and missional philoxenia. Hospitality is no longer a programmed means to evangelical proclamation but innate in our mission as people of God.

In a multicultural context like ours, we embody hospitality by developing an attentive presence to those unlike us. By imitating God Himself, who saves us as strangers and whose character is expressed in hospitality (Ephesians 2:19, Colossians 1:21-22), we practice and live out a transforming philoxenia which brings Shalom and Hope to our hurting and desperate world.

Dr Goh Wei-Leong a General Practitioner, is the founder and director of Linking Hands, a medical networking agency. 

He chairs the Christian Medical & Dental Fellowship (CMDF) of Singapore. He is the S.E. Asian regional general secretary of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA).

In 2006, he helped found and chairs HealthServe, a NGO and charity that reaches out to the under-served communities of foreign workers in Singapore.

Dr Goh serves with Operation Mobilisation (Singapore) as an OM Associate (Local Ministries) and in OM East Asia Pacific (Relief and Development). He is currently the chairman of the board of OM MTI (Mercy Teams International).

Common Morality in a World Wounded by Fragmentations

January 2017 Feature

“Get off your moral high horse,” we have heard this phrase thrown by people who think that you have been too demanding when making an ethical judgement or they just do not agree with a stand which you have made. Sometimes this is put differently.

They may appear as a convenient retort, saying “do not impose your moral views on us” usually in an attempt to cut short a conversation on a controversial subject, for example, when dismissing a person who thinks there is valid ground for reviewing the policy on current laws governing abortion.

This kind of reaction is taking an escapist way out of legitimate discussion. It short-circuits calm reasonable debate.

More seriously, however, that kind of attitude may suggest that on matters of morals, it is impossible to find consensus. In other words, morality, to use a phrase borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, is too fragmented in our post-enlightenment world that we cannot talk anymore with people who do not share, say, our religious beliefs or world views.

The assertion is that we cannot have any in-depth conversation with those who hold different perspectives on life especially on issues relating to what constitute moral standards deemed to be acceptable for people of differing faiths and those with no religious affiliation.

In many ways when we look at what is happening in our world today where conflicts seem to have escalated and opposing groups try to “settle” disagreement with violence or the imposition of will on other groups, we may have cause to conclude that finding common grounds is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Such pessimistic view seem credible enough if we consider the many interlaced factors to explain the surge in violence in our world.

From a historical perspective, we can see that most if not all the conflicts we have witnessed in recent times might have been brought about by a festering combination of combustible conditions, including failure to address dehumanising poverty and political disenfranchisement, worsened by the growing gap of the privileged class and those who are trapped in the quagmire of socio-economic cesspool.

The situation is compounded by the anxiety that it is unlikely that the privileged class will be able to understand fully the plight of, or talk sense with, those who have lived deprived and disadvantaged life.

Invariably, those who are deprived and disadvantaged would harbour suspicion of those who are in direct or indirect control over economic apparatus and tools for creation of wealth both at the national and at the international level. In other words, if there is a pernicious cycle of action and reaction, the violence is not just a response driven by politics of envy, as some might suggest. It has historical root often incubated over a long period of time in misery and a life of despair.

In the wider world scene, when talks have been initiated to resolve issues, such talks appear to be more like courtesy gatherings, a vacuous diplomatic road show, often with no concrete proposal and if there is a semblance of solution, they would be shot down by various legislatures and interest groups or placed at the bottom of a held-in-abeyance tray.

The unfortunate signal from such road show is that the participants seem more absorbed by political posturing and in exercise of political correctness marked by a clear lack of serious dialogue and commitment to find implementable common ground.

When people who are the under-class and marginalised are oppressed or pushed around over a long period of time, frequently crossing different generations, and when talks seem so detached from social reality, the disaffected tend to hit back and they have fought back.

That is why at the international level, this multi-faceted perspective explains in parts the rise of terrorist attacks when no meaningful avenues are open for negotiation and when there is no clear evidence of commitment to listen to each other in search of mutually beneficial and sustainable policies that would generate human flourishing.

In any case, often because of entrenched interest and suspicions, it is extremely difficult to expect trusting conversation to take immediate effect, assuming that we can bring people to the same table.

So while it might be correct to say, as an example, that a particular strand of Islamic teachings might have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims who have taken on extreme expression of their faith, might it not also be true that radicalisation is, in part, facilitated by the over-emphasis of an arrogant type of Euro-North American centric liberalism that worships unbridled individual rights aided by a constant persistent push by liberal fundamentalists among them politicians, the academia and those who control the major media who have sought to shut out the views of others or to ridicule them in the name of “progress”?

They underestimated that those who have found solace and strength in time-tested communitarian values would not accept such not-too-subtle cultural imperialism. You cannot legislate and export self-centred values by pushing such values down the throat of others who may not want to receive them.

Clearly fragmentations of the world and violent action and reaction could have been caused by failure to listen to each other and to respect legitimate concerns of different groups of people. Samuel Huntington might be correct after all when he postulated the idea of the clash of civilizations now made more pronounced by the evangelistic zeal of liberal fundamentalists and not just radicalised religious fanatics.

The future may look bleak in a world less than 20 years into the new millennium. The temptation is for observers of social events and human relationships to resign to cynicism.

The cynical response would be an appealing route to take when we think of the relentless march to export Euro-North American individualistic values and rights through the tools of political intervention, legislation, threat of economic sanction, and cultural imperialism on one hand, and the almost inevitable militant reaction from those who refuse to embrace the values unabashedly propagated and pressurise by incessant neo-imperialistic campaign.

So calling for others to “get off the moral high ground” may seem an expedient ploy to divert attention from serious conversation. Portraying the atomistic liberal ideology as progressive and everything else is intolerant if not primitive, only invites backlash because of their neglect of tested traditions which might not have Euro-North American origin and because of the selective preference of how to apply tolerance.

Such attitudes may just end up with none the wiser and we wonder why the seeming spiralling of violence in a world gripped with fear, nihilism, and despair.

There is still an option to help us steer clear of a using a fatalistic lens to look at the world.

It requires humility to recognise that while we may hold dear to a certain well-considered perspective in life, there are still many spheres in life which people of different faiths and those with no recognised religion can still find in what the political philosopher John Rawls describes as over-lapping consensus.

The truth of the matter is that we are all members of over-lapping communities with shared spaces, shared values and shared vision for human well-being, and have to be humble enough to grant that possibility.

From first impression and a casual look, the world is clearly fractious and fragmented.

However, for those who are prepared to invest time for deeper reflection and fair engagement which can be robust and yet civil; and which allows for one to draw on resources from our own faith and philosophy and to recoup common humanity, there is always the possibility of reclaiming common grounds and common morality unless one is an anarchist in the Nietschean sense or one is swayed by a religious apocalyptic vision or a political messianic pretension that is bent on destroying the world as it is, through the use of arms or imposition of will and ideology.

In the realistic approach guided by humility and hope, it does not matter if the result does not meet the complete desire or demand of a particular group, for this is unlikely, so long as the steps taken, views exchanged, or alternative offered provides an acceptable proximation to what one has hoped for and can live with.

In such dialogic conversation, Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature as both free and finite may help us in our search for social well-being. To know our freedom is to appreciate our human potential to find common consensus primarily informed by love and justice. To bear in mind our finitude is to carry with us a warning of our human limitation and proclivity to sin which, if allowed to dominate human social intercourse, can derail our search for a fair and just outcome.

In our Singapore context, we need to be alert to the blatant and subtle infiltration of ideologies, religious and political, which seek to impose their values and self-serving dogmas on our multi-racial, multi-religious society.

It is less likely for any kind of destructive political or religious ideologies to take root and find wide support if the government and people of goodwill work to ensure that no group is disenfranchised because of poverty and neglect, and no group is held up for honourable mention when that group has run away with disproportionate benefits and privileges.

It is also less likely for a society to be irreparably fractured if we do not dismiss without deeper reflection and appreciation our time-tested communitarian vision nourished by our unique mix of ancient rich cultural histories and traditions to be usurped by atomistic individualism. Of course one needs to be careful not to let communitarian benefit become a collectivistic nightmare or communal dictatorship. But this has to be dealt with in a separate essay.

The world is fragmented. But it is not fatal.

There is possibility for people of goodwill which, to avoid being elitist and self-serving, must include people of faith and those with none; the well-educated and the common people; the experts and ordinary workers; to listen to each other, to work for and reclaim common morality and vision for the well-being of our own society.


Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is interested in social ethical issues and how the Christian faith may contribute to enhancing community well-being. This interest is reflected in his occasional reflective essays and his active involvement in the social outreach ministry of the Methodist Welfare Services where he is currently serving as its Chairperson. He is also been a member of an Ethics Committee of a major restructured hospital, as well as a member of a Central Institutional Review Board.

Just Say No: Personal Responsibility in a Fallen World

December 2016 Feature Article


There is a sense in the world today that individual choices are no longer significant in the larger scale of events. The efforts of the individual appear to pale in comparison with the capabilities of large bureaucracies or huge multi-national corporations. Whether individuals recycle materials or conserve energy, for example, will no longer affect climate change; only government action will make a difference.

So hopes are pinned on collective action at the Paris talks on climate change in December 2015. An individual can do little but seek the best means of survival for oneself.

If individual action cannot change the course of events, is it safer or right to simply participate in these events, no matter how dishonourable or despicable they may be? If Christians cannot hold back the tide, should they stand their ground or should they float with the tide?

I think Christians should always speak the truth, and if that counsel or objection goes unheeded, Christians should walk away and not participate further, whatever the personal consequences threatened.

An extreme example may be helpful in framing the discussion.

Making Choices

2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. All wars are horrific, but World War II was made particularly so by the Nazi’s genocidal attempt to kill whole groups of people in Europe. The Nazi regime murdered not only Jews, but also physically and mentally handicapped Germans, about two million Russian prisoners of war, and many other unfortunate groups.

In the years following the war, scholars laid to rest the myth that the mass murders were perpetrated only by blood-thirsty indoctrinated Nazis, with ordinary Germans blissfully ignorant of these horrors.

Historians like Raul Hilberg (The Destruction of the European Jews), Christopher Browning (Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust) have shown conclusively that it was “ordinary” Germans from a cross-section of society who voluntarily, almost eagerly, committed mass murder. They were not coerced into murdering.

The motivations of these “ordinary” Germans to kill unarmed civilians and prisoners, and the indifference of others in permitting these heinous murders, have been much debated. “Why would civilised, educated, ‘ordinary’ people participate in genocide” is a gripping question.

And this begs the question of why did these “ordinary” Germans not refuse, given that many of them would have been Christians? Why did not these Christians just say “No”?

We may never arrive at a definite answer. But perhaps they all should have said No.

Some Germans did say No, and Goldhagen and Herbert Jäger have shown that no German who refused to kill a Jew or another civilian was ever harshly punished. Even when a few fanatical troopers of the SS (the organisation most responsible for the extermination of the Jews) refused to shoot unarmed Jewish civilians, they were not punished.

The Nazi regime, while not actually openly permitting, actually acquiesced in and respected the decisions of some of their own men who refused to commit murder. With no threat of severe consequences for refusing, it would have cost German Christians next to nothing to just say No. Instead they decided to voluntarily commit murder.

Instruments of righteousness or unrighteousness

By not saying No, the Christians among the murderers chose to obey illegal and immoral orders to kill. They set aside their obedience to God and chose not to be His servants.

Francis A. Schaeffer of the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland wrote that Christians could at every moment either yield themselves “into the hands of Christ for Him to use you as a tool or weapon in this world, or you can yield yourself in that moment as an instrument of unrighteousness even though you are a Christian.”

We are either God’s servants, or we are not. And in today’s complex world, Christians at times do choose not to say no, but go along with what the world wants.

What does the Bible say?

Reinhold Niebuhr in his essay “Four Hundred to One” gives a masterly retelling of the story of the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22. Micaiah was known to be a troublemaker at court who always gave a contrary view to the king. (Micaiah had no choice: he spoke the truth in the name of the Lord.)

Ordered to comment on the prospects of a war with Ramoth-gilead, Micaiah stood alone against four hundred obsequious prophets of the king of Israel. Micaiah called the four hundred fawning toadies liars for telling the kings of Israel and Judah that they would triumph. He prophesied a defeat and the scattering of Israel’s army.The kings shrugged off Micaiah’s prophesy and went to war.

For speaking the truth and being a true prophet of God, Micaiah was thrown into prison and given only “meager rations of bread and water”. Of course, Micaiah was absolutely right, both in his prophecy and in his courage to speak it whatever the consequences to his person.

Niebuhr pointed out that “A prophet who speaks only what the king wants to hear ceases ere long to be of use even to the king.” Christians must be useful prophets in society.

Christians should follow Micaiah’s example and speak the truth against unrighteousness, even if it means standing against a wave of popular opinion. We cannot give in to what we know to be wrong. (Micaiah initially merely repeated to the king of Israel the false prophecy, but the king knew Micaiah was not being serious.) We must take personal responsibility and make personal choices to be instruments of righteousness.

We may not be in a titanic struggle for survival in a war now, but our world can still make demands on Christians to do immoral or illegal acts. We must have the courage to say No.

We cannot claim we have no choice. We cannot fear the consequences of saying no. Because we do have a choice, and throughout history Christians have been willing to stand up for their faith even if it meant a death sentence.

Consequences for refusing to participate in illegal or immoral or even questionable acts are not usually fatal these days. They may cause one to lose one’s job, or have their promotion delayed, but surely these are consequences Christians must be prepared to accept for making a stand as a righteous person.

I once asked a senior civil servant what would he do if he were ever ordered to do something immoral. He proudly and happily told me that in his entire career, he had never been asked to do anything that was criminal or immoral.

He went on to add that if he were asked to do so in the future, he would simply quit. He said he would not want to work for an organisation that made such demands on him. All this is, of course, nothing less than what we would expect of our Singapore government and our civil servants; their incorruptibility is legendary.

However, not everybody has the privilege of working in such ethical organisations. Christians may be working in companies that have one or two or some questionable practices. These organisations may require employees to perform acts that, while not clearly immoral or illegal, may be found to be in grey areas.

In these situations, the Christian should speak up as a witness of a righteous God. In society, at work, in school, in everyday situations, Christians can be prophets or fore-tellers of truth and the Gospel.

We must refuse to participate in unrighteous or dishonourable activities. And we must be prepared to accept the consequences for doing so. We cannot participate in what we believe or know to be wrong.

The excuse that subordinates were “just obeying orders” has consistently been rejected by war trials and criminal courts. Judges have made it clear that illegal orders should not be obeyed, and that people must take responsibility for their own actions, especially if they choose to take part in criminal endeavours.

If Christians are asked or ordered to play a part in unrighteous schemes, they should simply not obey. The fact that many do obey shows a deep misunderstanding of the obligations of Christians to leaders of whatever ilk.

Scholars have shown that there is no one particular text in the Bible that gives a clear and full doctrine of the Christian’s relationship to civil authority. (I would include under the rubric of civil authority any superior authority in society, and not restrict the term to only state leaders.)

There appears in the New Testament to be three distinct responses to human authority and these have been described by Arnold Monera as: subordination or conformity (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2), critical distancing (Mark 12) and resistance or non-conformity (Revelation 13).

Too many Christians adopt only the first response. Certainly the Christian has responsibilities towards leaders. But unquestioning obedience and submission to human leaders is never mandated for Christians, especially in the face of unrighteousness.

It is when Christians use the other two responses (when required) that unrighteousness can be removed from or at least reduced in society. There are situations in which Christians must choose to obey God rather than any human authority, and we must remember that unconditional obedience is due only to God. As individual instruments of righteousness, we must learn sometimes to just say No.

That is what the Church being a witness in society must mean. Carl Henry (Faith at the Frontiers) has described the Church as ideally a minority that holds an ideological initiative in the battle for men’s minds and wills and consciences. It is ideally a minority that places the world on the defensive, a minority that cannot be ignored, a minority that shatters the complacency of its self-confident contemporaries, a minority that sounds an eerie warning and voices an authentic hope to an uneasy and unstable generation.

We cannot do this if we are always submissive and simply obey orders.


In October 2011, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt travelled from California to Munich to attend the trial of Jan Demjanjuk, a former member of the Red Army in World War II. Blatt was one of the last few people alive of the 82 who survived the Nazi death camps in Poland in World War II.

Nearly 70 years after he escaped as a 15-year old prisoner from the Sobibor concentration camp, Blatt testified in Munich that Jan Demjanjuk was also a guard in Sobibor. According to Blatt’s testimony, while Demjanjuk may not have actually killed anyone, anybody employed as a guard at Sobibor was a vital cog in the machinery and therefore complicit in a campaign of genocide.

Demjanjuk denied being at Sobibor but, given the evidence against him, was nevertheless found guilty of being an accessory to murder and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He appealed the conviction and died in 2012 before the appeal could be heard.

While Demjanjuk’s case was extremely complex, Blatt’s testimony is important because it underscores the argument that there are no innocent bystanders among participants in unrighteousness.

If you took part, then you took part! The option to just say No and consider resistance and non-conformity instead of blind obedience is always open. That is the option Christians must take in situations where we are asked to commit a crime or immorality, or do something dishonourable or unrighteous, or offend against God. We must, each one of us, just say No.


Rev Dr Chiang Ming Shun (TTC Alumnus, 2000) has been an ordained Methodist minister for 15 years and was recently appointed as Lecturer in Church History at Trinity Theological College. He is most interested not only in the Christian Experience in society, but also in Military History. Ming Shun is happily married to Po Lin, a teacher.